Benefits of Strategic Planning in Today’s Fire Service

Marketing fire companies for survival is now on the forefront

By James Lentz

Throughout North America, firefighters respond to a wide variety of emergencies that seem to expand regularly. Notwithstanding the increase in demand, we are always willing to step up in any time of need. Dating back to the 1800s and in recognizing the long history of the fire service when early fire companies were organized, uniformed firefighters hold parades and festivities honoring the company’s equipment and personnel with a sense of pride and commitment. Though customs have changed or vanished in some places, the sense of pride within never seems to fade. Firefighters continue to train for and be prepared for the most challenging emergencies regardless of demographics throughout the industry.

Tradition, dedication to service, and readiness may be several characteristics shared by fire departments today, but the most challenging and time-consuming tasks fire service leaders are confronted with is gaining the financial and political support from government leaders and municipal administrators. In the complicated economical times of today, the demand on fire departments to creatively identify predictable revenue streams and balance budgets is harder than ever before. Governments struggle with sharing limited tax revenues from various perspectives, again, depending on demographics. All the while, fundraising has been determined to be a leading cause in the reduction of volunteer firefighters, forcing companies to turn to government agencies for financial support. 

Governments too are seeking alternatives to balance budgets and continue to fund emergency services. Fire service leaders are forced to allocate more time than ever before in lobbying government leaders for fiscal support when it comes to emergency services. Marketing fire companies for survival is now on the forefront, taking precedence over other important administrative functions. Reeling in all stakeholders is now inclusive to marketing and political strategies to ensure politicians have the support from the community.

One approach to safeguarding support from all stakeholders, especially officials charged with producing an annual budget, is the implementation of a strategic plan. The engagement of all stakeholders in this process provides inclusion, which leads to buy-in and support for the agency.

The history of strategic planning dates back hundreds of years and was derived from the word “strategy,” used heavily in warfare. Originating from the military leaders’ strategic planning, two critical faces that remain unchanged through generations are the emphasis in thinking enormously, watching closely as things vary, bearing in mind all possibilities; and concentration on flawless absolute and steady enduring aims to be attained.

It was not until the 1960s that the business world caught on to the positive attributes of strategic planning and corporations both large and small began to plan intrinsically. A couple noteworthy changes to the process came to light when corporations engaged lower-level leaders and division supervisors of corporations with the executive or senior-level management in planning. This led to all stakeholders within certain commerce being engaged in the planning process, which is a remarkable difference from the military models of yesteryear.  

In the 1980s, as the reform of public sector agencies was in the air, people were seeking a more result-oriented and cost-conscious approach to public management practices, and strategic planning was introduced. This was a result of the recognition that business and government are alike in that goals and objectives should be embraced for any progressive results. 

In today’s fire service and economic times, the need for strategic planning is greater than ever before. From large metropolitan fire departments receiving grants in the millions to hire firefighters all the way to Irwin, Pennsylvania, where the fight over a proposed measly $16,000 budget cut will force a small rural fire company to cut services, firefighters are feeling the budget squeeze, but the demands never cease. Fire departments tend to try and be proactive in many disciplines in the response to fire, medical, hazardous materials, and technical rescue scenarios but still need a focal point to plan ahead. This is all in addition to the demand that requires a business-oriented approach to administering the departments outside of emergency operations.

Typically, an organization realizes the lack of a means to accomplish what needs to be done when things go awry and local government becomes engaged. To garner the support of local government, firefighters must educate all stakeholders in what the needs of the fire company and the community are. The most progressive means to accomplish this is by sharing a vision or a platform of what the organization should look like in five years. This is the creation of a “strategic plan” and is a means to simply provide a map that outlines a destination or a place where the fire company would like to be and how long the trip will take to accomplish it. It also contains tools to navigate along the way, concluding in a transcribed plan that is modest and pure and distinguishes existing challenges and goals.

There are many ways to define strategic planning that include, but are not limited to, the following:

–The process by which members of an organization envision its future and develop the necessary procedures and operations to achieve that future.

–The process of identifying an organization’s long-term goals and objectives and then determining the best approach for achieving those goals and objectives.

–Planning for a set of managerial decision and actions that determine the long-term performance of an organization.

Regardless of which approach a fire company chooses or what definition a group buys into, a substantial challenge is receiving the enthusiastic engagement of the members, especially in volunteer departments. All too often, members shy away from this school of thought for a multitude of reasons; the most common will cite a lack of available time to complete such a daunting task. But it is imperative for the rank-and-file to recognize that for the process to work, progressive thinking must take place, incorporating the most efficient application of resources by identifying priorities and chief officers receiving buy-in from all stakeholders.

Many benefits can come from a strategic planning process–some not only physical but psychological as well. Outside of securing the ability to obtain state-of-the-art apparatus, facilities, equipment, and training, learning how to anticipate and plan is an important tool in any war chest. Learning to think strategically and solve problems before they arise will improve the balance of any type of organization.

The strategic planning process also teaches firefighters responsible techniques and procedures to complete future planning. Another benefit is the feeling of inclusion from all participants.  One of the most important parts of the strategic planning process is the workshops that comprise not only firefighters but government leaders, administrators, residents, and business owners. In group participation such as this, the execution of the plan is more streamlined, as any costs associated with the plan have been reviewed by the stakeholders. This buy-in gets an organization the fiscal resources it needs to flourish. Planning is the only means by which an emergency service organization will thrive; without it, companies risk a grim future.

Fire services over the past several decades have changed. Specifically, the decline in the number of volunteers has forced government agencies in many places to pay more attention to volunteer fire companies, subsequently questioning their stability. Once government dives into an association and is looking down the road, organizations without a plan will be stifled by the response of stakeholders, ultimately forcing additional oversight or even disbanding.  Whether in small fire companies or large metropolitan fire departments, strategic planning has the same positive effect, but regardless of the size of the community the stakeholders are in, they are key in determining the final direction. 

When thinking of the fire service, the words tradition and culture jump out. Fire companies and fire departments have grown in some cases to be the monarch of communities nationwide.  As times have progressed, cities have merged into paid fire departments, while volunteer fire companies continue to serve suburban and rural communities, all with the same dedication and commitment as Ben Franklin had with the first Philadelphia Fire Company. However, there is a stronger demand in today’s fire service than ever before for a progressive approach to strategic planning. As costs skyrocket on all fronts, local governments are forced to scrutinize and prioritize every penny allocated more than ever before, forcing fire departments, especially volunteer fire companies, into a new age of justification.

Technology driven data has created an atmosphere of statistics, and if these statistics do not support the vision of any public department, the risk of losing support quickly becomes more apparent. Without a plan, an organization is doomed, and this hypothesis is an accurate reflection of what is already occurring in places nationwide with, no doubt, more to follow. 

When organizations are capable of justifying the annual requests for support, local governments will be more inclined to promote the means necessary to meet the demands. By providing written direction of where the organization is going, supported by performance-based results and future goals, stakeholders will maintain a level of trust and satisfaction in any fire department. This, by default, results in unilateral support of funding and other enhancements needed by the organization moving forward.

As tough economic times linger, and the number of firefighters in volunteer fire companies continues to tumble more than ever before, fire companies are approaching local government for assistance. In large urban fire departments, the cost of apparatus, personnel, and safety equipment continues to climb in some cases at rates above inflation, making it difficult to balance budgets. Once this door opens, managers and administrative leaders are forced to hold the organizations and department heads accountable when it comes to providing fire protection and the allocation of tax revenues, subsequently making strategic planning the most beneficial instrument today in a fire chief’s toolbox. Not only will strategic planning lay the groundwork for the future, the appearance of this leadership style and robust commitment to the delivery of public safety will pay dividends with the stakeholders by embracing the community’s commitment to fire protection.

James Lentz is a battalion chief in the Coatesville (PA) Bureau of Fire, where he has worked for 18 years. His 32-year career began as a volunteer in Lower Providence (PA). Lentz has a BS degree in public safety administration and a certification in municipal emergency management through the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. He is a certified fire inspector and emergency medical technician and has many national certifications in fire service disciplines including Fire Officer IV.      


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